(My earliest professional work with children took place in a child care center, working with infants and toddlers. Part of my responsibilities included occasionally contributing to the center’s newsletter. I hung onto my articles, and am including a sampling of the more relevant pieces. Enjoy!)

Toddler Classroom, Summer 2006

Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above,
            Don’t fence me in.
                        Let me ride through the wide open country that I love,
                                    Don’t fence me in.
                                          Let me be by myself in the evenin’ breeze,
                                                  And listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees,
                                                                   Send me off forever but I ask you please,
                                                                                  Don’t fence me in.
                                                                                     Poppa, don’t you fence me in.                          ~Bing Crosby

The question came up in one form or another in almost every single one of our parent conferences. You may have asked about eating, sleeping, tantrums, toilet learning (yes, I am going to say it that way every time), hitting, or testing, but really, you were all asking about the same thing: boundaries. ‘What rules should we have at home?’ ‘What rules do you have in your classroom?’ ‘Do you even have rules in your classroom?’

I can assure you that we do, though I do remember that in my first days working here, I wrote home to my Mom saying “the kids just run around and do whatever they want…but, somehow, it seems to work.” One of the reasons it works is because of the boundaries that are inherent in every classroom. They may not be explicitly posted on the fence like the rules at the swimming pool, but they shape your children’s days nonetheless.

The thought of rules and regulations may instinctively bring up negative emotions within you. You may envision a harsh authority figure, or remember chafing against the rules at some point in your life (maybe even now!). And while there are certainly some rules that were made to be broken and laws that should be changed, setting good boundaries for your children is actually an act of love. It is a way of nurturing your child. Limits give information about what is okay and what is not, about how the world works. That is critical information for developing children!

The limits we enforce at this center are grounded in safety: safety of self, others, and property. At the most basic level, we protect children’s physical safety: no standing in chairs, no walking with food or other objects in the mouth, no climbing on structures that don’t provide adequate padding, and so forth. We also protect the safety of others: “gentle hands,” “use your words,” and “that’s too rough” are some of the ways we express that guideline. Protecting others also protects your child in that it gives him or her information about how to act in society and with other people. In addition, we ask children to be respectful of their environment and things in it. We don’t let children shred books, mark up tables or walls, or dump piles of sand on the carpet. This limit is probably the hardest of the three to see in action because we have the luxury of a very child-friendly environment. We don’t have flat-screen televisions, designer sofas, or even regular versions of the aforementioned items that you just don’t want destroyed. We are set up to meet your child’s developmentally appropriate need to be messy, to be physical, and to, well, destroy furniture. Over time, this boundary will become more defined as we start asking children to take more and more responsibility for their actions (e.g., throwing away trash after meals and putting away used toys before moving on to another activity). The limits we set teach children to care for themselves, their peers, and their environment…all of the things that they will need to help them succeed in the world.

Rules and boundaries shape our society; even as adults, we feel the need for structure. If you doubt me, think about how you feel when someone cuts in line, speeds past you on the freeway, or edges you out in the merging lane. Those people are breaking the rules, ignoring boundaries: they are making the world less safe and treating their fellow humans unkindly. Clearly, they are not products of our center!

It may seem counterintuitive to set limits when we want children to be free to grow and to direct their own learning, but the boundaries adults set give children stability and structure, they can feel safe and secure in their explorations. They can focus on their interests rather than always trying to figure out what the rules are. Don’t get me wrong, some of their interests include testing and retesting of the very limits that are set to make them so secure. The most important thing you can do is to consistently, and with a clear conscience, stick to your guns.

In other words, Momma and Poppa, fence them in!